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Union wants recall of furloughed Delta pilots

And airline is facing $85 million annual cost of pay raise

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ATLANTA — Just as Delta Air Lines is trying to cut its industry-topping pilot pay, it's about to get socked by two developments that could boost costs.

The Atlanta airline's pilots union said Wednesday that it wants the company to begin recalling 1,060 furloughed pilots under terms of an arbitrator's ruling last year.

Meanwhile, a 4.5 percent pay raise is scheduled to take effect Saturday that Delta estimates will cost $85 million annually.

The Air Line Pilots Association told members Wednesday evening that Delta's growing traffic exceeded pre-Sept. 11 levels, triggering the recall.

"We believe the trigger has been met," ALPA spokeswoman Karen Miller said. She said the union has asked to meet with Delta officials to begin negotiating a recall schedule. "We're waiting for their response."

A spokesman for Delta, which operates a hub at Salt Lake City International Airport, said the airline will meet with union officials soon but declined to say whether the airline agrees that a recall has been triggered.

"We'll be happy to discuss all of the information with the appropriate ALPA officials in the near future," said Delta spokesman John Kennedy. "We're not going to discuss the data publicly at this time."

The 2001 pilot contract prohibited furloughs unless they were prompted by events beyond the company's control. Delta invoked the clause twice to furlough pilots, citing the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq.

ALPA unsuccessfully challenged Delta's use of the clause in 2002 but renewed the challenge as furloughs continued. An arbitrator's ruling early last year halted the second round of furloughs. The ruling further said Delta would have to begin recalls when revenue passenger miles, a standard industry measure of traffic, returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels.

The 4.5 percent wage rate increase set for Saturday is part of the basic pilot contract signed in June 2001. It put Delta pilots atop the industry wage scale, and the gap has widened since other carriers negotiated concessions with their unions.

A midcareer Delta captain flying a narrow-body jet typically makes around $225,000 a year, before the upcoming raise.

The pay raise will be reflected in pilots' June 15 paychecks.

Delta has been seeking deep wage cuts and other mid-contract concessions that would save about $800 million annually. The union has offered a smaller cut that would wipe out Saturday's raise, but Delta chief executive Gerald Grinstein says the offer is too limited.

The airline recently reported a first-quarter loss of $383 million.

"We remain committed to working with ALPA to achieve long-term, sustained, competitive pilot costs," Kennedy said.

Even if pilot recalls begin, they are likely to be phased in, depending on how fast Delta is able to fit recalled pilots into its training schedule.

"It's got to be a reasonable schedule," said Miller. "Whether it's 30 a month or 50 a month that the (Delta) training department can handle, I don't know."